Road Maintenance Funding Formula up for Grabs

Time to factor in truck damage to roads in the state maintenance-funding formula?

by James A. Bacon

A subcommittee of the Commonwealth Transportation Board is discussing new criteria for the distribution of state dollars for road and highway maintenance. At the urging of CTB member Sheppard Miller, a Norfolk businessman and urban at-large member, Virginia Department of Transportation staff will present data at the next subcommittee meeting showing how the state funding formula, which currently is based upon the number of lane miles in a transportation district, might change if it incorporates measures such as Vehicle Miles Traveled or indicators of economic activity.

The subcommittee, which met in Portsmouth this afternoon, is charged with examining how state maintenance dollars might be more efficiently or effectively spent. Subcommittee members raised a variety of issues but Sheppard focused like a heat-seeking missile on the funding formula and drove the conversation toward the adoption of criteria that would give measures of traffic congestion and economic impact equal weight with lane-miles.

The current system distributes funds to areas that can’t put all the money to good use and short-changes areas with major maintenance backlogs, Miller charged. He cited a road he is familiar with, Rt. 33, which runs through an unspecified rural county. The road had no cracks or potholes but VDOT repaved it anyway. “Government fixes things that don’t need fixing and doesn’t fix things that do,” he said. “From my vantage point, the system we have now is neither equitable or efficient.”

Miller reiterated his view that every district should receive enough funding to maintain a minimum of service — a safety net — no matter how low the traffic counts. After all, he explained, people need to get to work or drive to the hospital. But he objected to the gold-plating of little-traveled rural roads. He suggested adding a measure like Vehicle Miles Traveled, which reflects how many people are using the roads. That figure could be adjusted for the number of heavy trucks, which tend to inflict more damage on pavement than automobiles. Such an adjustment would benefit areas like Norfolk, which has heavy port-generated truck traffic, and the coalfields, where heavy-laden coal trucks pound the roads.

John Lawson, VDOT’s chief financial officer, noted that the Federal Highway Administration uses three criteria when allocating Interstate-maintenance funds to the states: 1/3 based on lane miles, 1/3 based on vehicle miles traveled, and 1/3 based on revenue generated by commercial vehicles. The third criteria captures an economic dimension of the highways that the other measures did not.

Gary Garczynski, a Woodbridge developer and urban at-large member, agreed that the economic dimension was critical, especially given Governor Bob McDonnell’s emphasis on jobs and economic development. He also suggested that Northern Virginia localities ought to get some credit for their large investments in mass transit, which takes traffic off the roads.

James Lee Keen, a rural at-large member from the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, gave Miller some gentle pushback, reminding the subcommittee how much the maintenance funds meant to a jurisdiction like Dickenson, a mountainous county of 18,000 people lacking a single four-lane road. “If we look today at what’s being spent on Dickenson County, I venture to say that we’re not spending the money we think,” he said. “I think it’s only a very small amount of money. But it’s very important to the quality of life of the people who live there.”

A related issue, which received only brief discussion, was the idea of abandoning transportation assets that could not longer be economically justified. Miller gave the example of a bridge in Suffolk that VDOT shut down, even though it added many miles to the commute of local residents. “Those people were disadvantaged,” he said. “But the cost to maintain it was more than the value of having it.” In the previous meeting, the subcommittee discussed stricter criteria for admitting new subdivision roads into the state system but did not return to the subject today.

Ideally, suggested Miller, subcommittee members would reach a consensus on the desired criteria based on their merits before looking at how the numbers shook out for individual localities. But he had no illusions. “Somebody’s ox is going to get gored,” he said. “We’re all going to get parochial. We’ll look at how the numbers work out and see how it affects us.”

Important update: A number of people, me included, have been laboring under an illusion about how Virginia’s maintenance funds are allocated. The issue didn’t surface to be resolved until Shep Miller brought up the subject at the regular CTB meeting two days following the subcommittee meeting described above. Connie Sorrell, VDOT’s chief of systems operations, set the record straight. Two points. First, “lane miles” are the criteria used to divvy up only maintenance funds between cities and towns. Second, the allocation of funds among counties whose roads are maintained by VDOT (which excludes Arlington and Henrico) is done on the basis of need. “Need” is determined by the condition of roads and bridges as tracked under VDOT’s asset management plan.

Unfortunately, it appears that a good deal of the first two subcommittee meetings was wasted as Miller pursued his line of thinking based upon a misunderstanding. Why did not someone set him straight?

This article was written thanks to a sponsorship of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

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6 responses to “Road Maintenance Funding Formula up for Grabs”

  1. I’m impressed. The CTB is actually do something that is it’s proper role.

    but I still think that each county should receive an accounting for how much it generates in fuel taxes – and how much is spent in the county for new construction, maintenance and operations.
    and we need to recognize that VDOT will need to keep a certain amount to maintain State Level roads.

    we don’t want balkanization but we ought to be accounting for the monies more than the current method which leads to suspicions – and politics.

    and I question why any jurisdiction should get “credit” for building transit unless Virginia is going to insure that each locality receives an equitable allocation.

    People who live in rural areas and need to get to the doctor and other mobility needs are just as important as people who need/use transit in urban areas.

  2. I am with Larry on this one. The CTB should reexamine the highway maintenance formula to ensure that the funds follow the need and are fairly consistent with the geographic sources of tax dollars. I don’t see, however, what transit has to do with road maintenance costs or funds. Transit is related to the construction of wider or new roads not whether they are repaved or plowed.

  3. re: confusing “transit” with roads…..

    let me explain..

    roads and transit have 3 components:

    1. construction
    2. maintenance
    3. operations

    when we say “maintenance” we also mean “operations”

    for better or worse – the State and the Feds have agreed to use road taxes not only for transit construction but also maintenance and operations.

    and the Feds made it worse because they make “available” road money to build transit for the localities that ask for it.

    so….for instance… Fredericksburg has a small-town bus service called FRED – and it charges 25 cents per rider and the rest of it is paid for by gas taxes at the Fed and State level.

    Fredericksburg also has a separate Van service for elderly and disabled and other so-called “underserved” populations and those Vans are purchased and operated and maintained with gas tax money that is obtained from the Feds and State on a “grants” basis – which basically means that if Fredericksburg operates a community bus service they get the money but localities that do not – do not get that money. Those communities, in effect, are donating their gas taxes to Fredericksburg and other communities who compete for those transit “grants”.

    Now.. one might think that a fiscally conservative Governor might view such an arrangement as something other than “ok” but very few elected fiscal conservatives have advocated getting rid of any/all transit that derives it’s monies from gas taxes.

    So for instance, when NoVa receives a billion dollars from FTA for METRO- that money is coming from gas taxes.

    and we all know – that the DTR plans on using road tolls for transit and even the HOT lanes plan on using those tolls for transit.

    Now some folks in NoVa might believe that they get “shorted” on transpo money anyhow but we have no real accounting because “we can’t”.

    if we had such an accounting, I strongly suspect that most urban areas are net recipients of road money – not donors….

  4. I certainly agree with LarryG on the need for real accounting. However, I’d expand that to an accounting for everything. Roads, education, public safety, jails, etc, etc.

    Many corporations have more revenue than Virginia has budget. Those companies manage to provide a fair and accurate accounting for their operations. So should Virginia.

    The other thing that strikes me is the incompetence of the General Assembly. They allocate funds based on lane miles without regard to the number of miles driven on those lanes? Really? Does that sound like it’s competent? does that seem like a plan that would work?

    How many examples of the General Assembly’s incompetence do we have to see before we start taking power away from that Clown Show?

  5. States need an elected Inspector General with the charter of digging where the other elected and appointed officials don’t want holes dug. People in NoVA need senators and delegates who understand their job is to represent their constituents. Some times that means coming home from Richmond with a black eye and a bloody nose.
    The real solution for roads in Virginia includes making counties responsible for their own local roads, just as cities and towns are responsible for their local roads.

  6. basic accountability is already available.

    For instance, it would be easy to compute how much METRO costs on a per capita basis for NOVA.

    how much is it? is it $10, or $100 per man, women and child?

    one number I have seen is $2 billion a year.

    that’s 2000000000 / 5,000,000 = $400 – per capita….

    if everyone who lived in the Wash Metro area got a bill for $400 a year for METRO what would happen?

    but because METRO is funded obscurely by “grants” – that bill does not get sent nor appreciated.

    I’m not arguing against METRO – I’m saying that without accountability – the public fails to appreciate the real cost nor the fact that METRO is subsidized by people who don’t live in the counties that METRO serves.

    should METRO be funded by the regions it serves and not expect “grants” from the Feds and the State?

    or should METRO be funded from tolls on roads in NoVa?

    or should METRO be funded from a 1% sales tax?

    or should METRO be funded by the people who ride it?

    METRO is one of the reasons why Virginians road maintenance fund is sucking air…

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